“I’m not a racist, but…” the DMV clerk began. Somehow, I found myself in the middle of a conversation I did not want to be in.
My transaction had been going smoothly when the polite chit chat swerved sharply to the right.
By the time I completed my transaction two things were clear. One was that this woman was undeniably a racist. The other was that as far as immigration was concerned, she just didn’t get it.
Her philosophy on immigration was simple: we don’t need those people.
The problem is, she said, that we keep importing all these Asians. We don’t need them. We can run our own swap meets and convenience stores. Besides, she explained, their food is unsanitary and makes us sick.
She also blamed President Bush. If he wasn’t such good friends with Vicente Fox, then he wouldn’t be making it so easy for Mexicans to get here.
It just isn’t right, she said, attributing her low salary and high housing costs to “those people.”
I was appalled.
But it got me thinking about something a co-worker recently told me. When she was a student in communist Russia, she and others, including doctors and scientists with PhDs, were required to stand in as seasonal farm laborers. There were no illegal immigrants, she said matter-of-factly. There was no one else to harvest the crops.
I wanted to tell my racist DMV clerk this story, to explain to her the implications of closing our borders to immigrants. I wanted to give her an impromptu lecture on free-market economics. But I didn’t have the stomach for it. I grabbed my receipt and ran for the door.
There is a very important lesson to be learned from this story.
It isn’t that communism is bad or that DMV clerks are racists. It’s that a significant number of Americans justify their racism in terms of lost jobs and opportunities.
I came away convinced that immigration reform will only succeed if we give the racists and xenophobes need a reason to care. Sympathy for the plight of those seeking better lives isn’t enough.
It’s better explained in terms of how immigration reform can improve regular Americans’ lives. They need to understand what the economics of cheap immigrant labor means for their quality life and their purchasing power.
Better yet, they need to understand how the absence of cheap immigrant labor can make their lives worse. That prices will rise and cheap imports will flood the markets. That regular Americans will lose jobs.
The bottom line is that prejudice drives a huge segment of the population to oppose immigration. As sad as it is, marches and rallies aren’t going to change this.
But maybe that opposition can be softened by showing these folks that only by helping those trying to be Americans will they end up helping themselves.
This, I believe, is our challenge.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.